Things just go slower for Religious Knives. Their songs are long; their tempos, glacial. Song development happens not through change but repetitive addition. Drones slowly twist in and out of the stereophonic landscape, chanting voices enter and exit, clamoring guitars arrive without expectation, and drums and bass maintain a dense but always slightly off-kilter groove. Everything seems to have a will of its own. On The Door, there is a sense that the sounds happening are not the products of the people creating them but rather those of some inscrutable (and vaguely dangerous) pulsing energy below our feet.
It’s an amazing effect. And it’s created through the sheer power of quantity and repetition. The album has only six songs, each of which are about five minutes, but they seem to last even longer because they do not progress in the normal way. Instead of verses and choruses or even identifiable sections, we get drones and rhythms that change slowly through small additions and variations. This evolutionary aesthetic gives a sense of uncontrollable destiny in the music. These noises swell and change organically, like a force of nature, not an imposition of human rationality.
As such, the songs necessitate a rearrangement of the senses in order to be enjoyed. A cursory listen might hear only a dense forest of sameness. But with The Door we must reverse the moral behind the old idiom “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” Here, we can and should get lost in hypnotic particularities and stare resolutely at the trees. The music is not about overpowering noise (a possible expectation given Thurston Moore’s hand in the production) but rather subtler shifts in rhythm and density. This is out-of-your-body groove music, not brain-erase noise music. Closer “Decisions Are Made” is perhaps the best instance of this: Beat and chanting voice occupy the foreground as the guitar lays down dense layers of distortion that lend a gray hue to the composition as a whole.
But my favorite song is “On a Drive.” Electric wire drone and trashcan clank start the song, and after these go on for as long as a typical pop song, a nearly ritualistic plainchant begins: “On a drive to the beach/ In the middle of the night/ Shadows on the hood/ Running from the streetlights/And you left me on the stand/Waiting for your call.” Overlaid by Liars-like delay-stuttered guitars and undergirded by an elegantly primitive bass line, the song steadily increases in intensity and eventually comes to an oceanic close. All the foreboding darkness of the band’s name rings out here. We seem to occupy some dark, disconnected, empty landscape. We seem to be in the throes of some post-apocalyptic cult.
The album reminds me of an exhibit happening right now at the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York. Called After Nature, this exhibit brings together different artists’ perspectives on the merging of human life and nature in a post-apocalyptic world. Needless to say, there are some strange works of art here: fake documentaries about the end of the world that use footage from the burning oil fields of the first Iraq War, a resin sculpture of a body that merges into dead branches, seven painted wax heads resting on rusted metal pedestals, dead trees held up with steel and wire, a horse’s body stuck in a museum wall. Any of these pieces could work as a visual analog to The Door. Both the art and the music tap into those primal chthonic energies that simultaneously engender fear and ecstasy -- death and decay but also transformation and renewal.
Religious Knives is comprised of Maya Miller and Michael Bernstein, formerly of industrial drone group Double Leopards, Nate Nelson of the similarly noisy Mouthus, and Todd Cavallo rounding the group out on bass. After a string of twelve inches, singles, and an LP, they're set to release their proper sophomore effort, The Door. It was co-produced by Thurston Moore, and will see release on his Ecstatic Peace imprint. Don't be intimidated by the band member's pedigree and the noisy reputation of their label, though. Since its inception as a four-piece just over a year ago, Religious Knives have been paring down their sound, emphasizing Krautrock rhythms and bright synth drones over industrial noise. The Door is the next step in this evolution.